Propelling the business of e-bike mobility

Rebecca Morley heads to the eBike Summit in Oxford to look at the barriers to e-bike riding and what the industry can do to overcome them.

The eBike Summit, the first dedicated international business event for the e-bike industry, was held at Oxford University’s Wolfson College on 10th April 2019. It brought together industry players and business leaders from cycling bodies, cycle manufacturers, the retail sector, investors and the public sector, with the aim to create a business forum to ‘propel the business of e-bike mobility’.

Many speakers took to the stage, with panels discussing cities and mobility, pleasure bikes, e-cargo bikes, commuters, and infrastructure and investment. In between each panel was a networking session, designed to give the opportunity to connect with other delegates and start the process of building meaningful business relationships.

The day kicked off with a video message especially for the summit from Jesse Norman, which served as a ‘marker of just how much potential the e-bike sector has’, according to Ade Thomas, executive director of Green.TV, who headed up the summit.

In his welcoming speech, Thomas shared his thoughts on his own journey into the e-bike sector and the potential it has: “Let’s think big and shift our baseline of understanding around the potential of e-bikes to take over from the car. Reach out – connect with a wider audience. The room is full, which is great, but it’s full of white middle-aged men.

“There’s a world of people out there waiting to be excited about e-bike cycling and a world of new customers too – so connect with them. Work together – the cycling sector is made up of small and medium-sized companies and organisations, and with that, I think comes a degree of insecurity and perhaps a fear of competition. I would suggest that we should embrace the opportunities that are opening up. Look to make new friends and forge partnerships. The eBike Summit is dedicated to making the time and space available for that.”

Barriers to cycling
The morning keynote speaker was Andy Naylor, consumer service manager at Raleigh UK. Naylor spoke of the growth that the e-bike sector has seen in the UK, which, while still relatively small in the context of Europe, is a rapidly growing sector of the market. He said: “If you take some examples from across Europe, last year in Germany alone there were a million e-bikes sold in the market, which is significantly higher than in the UK. More than half the bikes sales in the Netherlands last year, if you exclude kids bikes, were e-bikes. We can see two leading examples in the rest of Europe, and I think it’s now the UK’s turn to catch up with the rest of Europe in terms of e-bikes sales.

“The question that was posed by Ade before the summit was really about: ‘What are the barriers? Is infrastructure really the key to all of this?’ If you take the infrastructure in both the Netherlands and in Germany, they’re way ahead of us in terms of what they do.

“From a UK perspective, the infrastructure really is key. Going alongside that infrastructure, it’s really about getting the right culture, and having that right cycling culture so that motorists get their own space on the road alongside people who are choosing to use bicycles to commute on. Really from a cultural point of view, the UK has a lot of catching up top do. I think that in terms of cycling culture if you go to the Netherlands you can see that. It really is about bike first, and if you ride a bike around Amsterdam you very rarely have to give way to traffic, you normally have the right of way.”

Also addressing the topic of infrastructure, Nick Chamberlin, policy manager at British Cycling, said: “E-bikes have two roles to play in the future. Certainly one for recreation and of course the transport.

“Both of them require the infrastructure that will make people feel safe so that e-bikes are a real alternative to cars for some journeys. I believe that public e-bikes are going to be absolutely critical to make expensive e-bike technology available to more people and it is so exciting to hear about what’s happening in that public bike space. There is a unique opportunity for Britain to be at the forefront of design and innovation.

“Every time an e-bike gives someone the confidence to start riding for the first time or ride more than they currently do, the technology has absolutely demonstrated its importance and its impact.”

Other than infrastructure, barriers can include the cost of purchase and maintenance of e-bikes, the limited number of e-bike retailers, fitness levels for certain people, perception of cyclists, and the notion that ‘e-bikes are for old people’. According to Naylor, we’re seeing a change in the market, with more and more young people actually considering an e-bike as a viable alternative to a motor vehicle. In terms of opportunities around the cost of ownership, we’re already seeing bike to work schemes which allow users to go over the £1,000 limit. For retail, it is important to have e-bike specialists, which Naylor said there is a rise in, and demo riding is also key, with stores that have the stock available for customers to try. With the number of bike shops that have closed down in recent years, this could be a real growth opportunity for retailers.

Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK, said: “Our strategy is to get millions of more people cycling, simple as that.” But when it came to talking about the barriers and opportunities that surround e-bike riding, he said there’s a danger of ending up in a conversation about numbers, talking about how fast the European markets have grown and the percentage increase of e-bike sales – and why the UK market has been slower to progress.

“You start talking about that, and you forget the equally important issue, which is: ‘What are the demographics? What are the groups that are taking up e-bike use? What are the barriers to particular groups?’ The Government last year touched upon this when it had a consultation on the future of mobility, and it probably caused no surprise to hear that as a cycling charity, we focused very much on e-bikes. But as well as making the case for more e-bike use, we were very keen to focus on core support for particular groups to take up e-bike riding. We need to look at older people, health patients, those with disabilities, and those from lower income groups who are faced with transport deprivation.”

In terms of removing some of the barriers people may face when wanting to cycle, he said try-before-you-buy schemes are already proving successful in helping people get over their lack of confidence that they may have about taking up a new activity, purchasing a new type of vehicle and trying a different form of transport. Dollimore said that’s why last year the charity’s main call when it responded to the Government was that there needed to be some more support, whether it’s central, local or industry-led, to actually develop more community-based try-before-you-buy schemes, because otherwise, we’re going to have the same demographic coming into e-bikes which won’t achieve the maximum benefits and potential for people.

He added: “Money can be used as the excuse put forward by those who are lacking in confidence. Those who are lacking in confidence need to have some encouragement to try something new. I think my message to you today is as well as thinking about expanding e-bikes as a concept overall, think about how we get a wider group of people involved riding e-bikes because it’s that group of people where there’s the greatest opportunity to maximise the benefits that this incredible technology presents.”

On the cities and mobility panel, Richard Thorpe, founder and managing director at Gocycle, spoke about increasing incentives in order to encourage people to ride e-bikes. “I think there are four different categories: infrastructure, awareness, cost and incentives.”

He said if we want people to get out there and tackle those barriers to getting on an e-bike then we need to pay them because the net benefits to society are positive. “I came to the point where I thought, we can sit here and talk about what someone else should do or policies we should have in place, and I go back to that 17 years since I started the company, and I felt like: ‘I need to do something about this today’,” he continued.

He announced that Gocycle employees will be entitled to claim 40p per mile when choosing to commute to the brand’s Chessington-based headquarters on an e-bike rather than using a car. He said he is confident that the Government is going to come back, maybe in five years time, and give the brand credit for all the e-bike miles that it has paid its staff and the net benefits to society that it’s going to bring.

Pleasure bikes
The summit also had a panel on pleasure bikes. Danny Cowe, business development executive at Mountain Bike Centre of Scotland, spoke about the barriers to e-mountain biking, including the fear from landowners that e-MTBs are similar to motorbikes, in that they will ‘churn up’ the hillside, and cause ‘massive disruption’. Whilst this may have been the normal experience in the late 1980s/early 1990s of mountain biking, he said this was changed by good infrastructure.

“It’s just the same with e-mountain biking, we need to invest in the infrastructure. The only difference with an e-mountain bike is more people can get over the barrier of that hill or that mountain.” He also talked about the tourism aspects of mountain bikes, with e-MTBs having huge growth potential. Getting young children and families involved is also a bonus, and e-MTBs can also have positive benefits on mental health.

Charlie Mellor, general manager at Hummingbird, also spoke of the enjoyment aspect, and said: “The first experience of an e-bike is something that I think will also stay with you, getting people onto a bike and getting them to experience the excitement is something which we can join and try and spread.”

E-cargo bikes
The summit also addressed e-cargo bikes, and the benefits they have on businesses. Paul Mather, global vehicle solutions lead at Deliveroo, spoke about the advantage of riders using e-bikes versus pedal bikes, saying e-bikers do 20% more orders an hour than pedal cyclists, leading to a ‘significant’ increase in earnings. This is because e-bikes can increase a rider’s speed and also decrease fatigue.

He said: “The opportunities for e-bikes, for us, is about making being a delivery rider more inclusive, so you don’t have to worry about being physically fit. Maybe you even have a medical problem, but you’re able to deliver food on an e-bike comfortably, safely, you can wrap up when it’s rainy or when it’s windy, and stay warm. We only think it’s a question of time before the vast majority of our riders globally are using e-bikes.”

Dr Kevin Golding-Williams, head of cycling and walking policy at the Department for Transport, referred to the video message from Norman at the start of the day, and said: “As you will have seen from the video message this morning, you’ve got a massive supporter on e-bikes from Jesse Norman, in fact when I did get signal briefly when I was outside, I did see he’s asked for feedback, he was asking how it’s going.

“The Government recognises the opportunity for e-bikes and e-cargo bikes to deliver the Government’s objective around doubling cycling as outlined in the in the statutory cycling and walking investment strategy, which is a real game-changer in how we approach both cycling and walking in England.”

Also at the summit, a new, technology-led, e-cargo bike manufacturer from Oxford, Electric Assisted Vehicles (EAV), launched its new company and announced its new Project 1 (P1) e-cargo bike. EAV has assembled a team of engineers from the automotive, motorsports and aerospace industries in order to produce a ‘culturally focused’ solution to sustainably ‘disrupt’ the way products and services are moved.

Its approach has been to conceptually ‘engineer down’ from current Light Commercial Vehicles rather than ‘engineer up’ from the bicycle. In doing so, it said operators of the P1 will still find “many of the elements of using a van they’re used to, but with the immense efficiencies and zero emissions of the e-cargo bike”.

Caroline Bartle, research fellow at the University of the West of England, presented research from an e-bike survey, which aimed to find out why people are riding e-bikes, in particular for commutes, and what some of the barriers are to people who aren’t. The survey had just over 2,000 responses, and out of its respondents 30% were women and 40% were over 60.

Reasons why people were commuting by e-bike included help with getting up hills, it being less expensive than driving, better for the environment, getting to work less sweaty, cycling further on the commute, and also getting some exercise.

However, the research also showed that a lot of people said it allowed them to continue cycling when they might have felt pressure to give up, whether that was because of age, being less fit, an injury or illness. Among the younger demographic in the sample, respondents spoke of the convenience with managing a work/life balance.

On the reasons why people were not using an e-bike to commute, Bartle said: “Often it was because of the commute distance, it’s too long. But the issue of heavy traffic and not feeling safe came up quite a lot, just as it typically does with normal cycling. Still, people consider them to be too expensive, and this idea that e-biking is lazy did come up quite a lot.”

Julian Scriven, MD at Brompton, spoke about the brand’s folding bikes and said that bikes should be integrated with other transport where possible as not every journey can be made completely by bike. He said: “The whole point of Brompton is that it integrates with other forms of transport – it’s a commuters’ tool, it’s definitely not a sport bike, it is a bike for a purpose.”

He continued: “I’m all about trying to get the integration of transport. For me, folding bikes, whether it’s a Brompton, whether it’s a Hummingbird, whether it’s one of the other great bikes that have been built out there, if you can integrate with other transport, then we’re going to have success.”

Health and wellbeing
Tim Jones, reader in urban mobility at Oxford Brookes University, spoke about the health benefits of e-bikes, and the Cycle Boom study carried out by the University of Reading and Oxford Brookes University. The research found that cyclists between the ages of 50 to 83 experienced cognitive and mental health benefits from riding a bike, whether it was electrically assisted or pedal powered and – people using e-bikes actually reported an even greater improvement in brain function and mental wellbeing as people who used standard bikes. The additional benefits that e-bikes provide to older users have an effect beyond increasing physical activity and can play a part in encouraging this demographic to cycle.

Luke Harper, HSBC’s head of British Cycling partnership, talked about the bank’s involvement in the ‘normalisation of cycling’. He said: “We partnered with British Cycling to launch a whole load of Let’s Ride series, so you may or may not have seen we’ve closed down 16 city centres across the year, in the likes of Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, and we’ve closed those roads for the day. Why? Because it gives families and children the chance to use the road when there are no other vehicles and give it a chance.”

He continued: “Let’s Ride is our strategic vision, and it speaks around greener, fitter, healthier. There aren’t that many sports you can do on your way to work. Some people run, but you can’t generally play rugby or hockey. Cycling to work gives us that sense of: ‘I’ve burned some calories, I’ve saved the planet and I’m ready for work.’

“The greener, fitter, healthier piece the strategy that we’re on, and this piece around families, females and first-timers, the three Fs. If you’re already running or cycling it’s not difficult. If you haven’t been on a bike for 20 years it’s bloody difficult, and that’s where I think electric bikes are kind of the saviour of cycling.”

Louise Upton, councillor, cycling champion at Oxford City Council, spoke about the health benefits of e-bikes, and the ‘myth’ that you don’t do any exercise when you’re on an e-bike. It’s not a scooter, she said. But like many people throughout the summit, she also talked about the safety aspect, as in order to encourage more people to take up cycling they need to feel safe on the roads.

The need for investment in good infrastructure was a theme that came up again and again throughout the summit, with many speakers emphasising its importance. “If we want to get people onto bicycles we have got to give pleasant and safe cycleways to do it on,” Upton said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get the elderly, people bringing their children, the three Fs mentioned earlier: families, females and first-timers.”

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